Out The Week
The Goob (Soda, cert 18)
Films like to suggest that life is rawer, more elemental away from the cosmopolitan, metrosexual centres of civilisation. And in British films there’s often a suggestion that out in Norfolk, especially, things tend towards the Wild West. It was apparent in 1996’s Dad Savage, a film largely unseen except by Star Trek nuts, who seek it out to watch Patrick Stewart in a Stetson. And we get that with knobs on in The Goob. It’s a terrible title, but the film itself is excellent, a High Noon kind of affair about a lad having a showdown with his own stepfather (a loose use of a term for the man who is shagging his mother, and most other women in town). In this flat landscape of low life expectations, lairy lads and peroxide girls, stock cars and booze, Goob (Liam Walpole) is caught in tension between his desire for independence, his love for his brassy mother (Sienna Guillory) and cowering respect for Womack (Sean Harris), the local psycho taking whatever vagina is available; quite a lot since he’s the gangmaster of a local picking operation and a new lot of East Europeans arrive seasonally. Writer/director Guy Myhill brilliantly paints the landscape and the people in Goob’s life, before throwing in a few destabilising elements – a slightly effete chap (Oliver Kennedy) who likes to dance to disco music and suggests there’s another life away from this desolate open-prison existence, and a pretty picker (Marama Corlett) newly arrived, who’s also caught the eye of Womack. Shake these elements together and prepare for a big finish. In a cast of lovely performances by Guillory, Corlett, Walpole, Kennedy and even S Club 7’s Hannah Spearritt, Sean Harris stands out as Womack, a rusty barb of a man constantly on the verge of sex and/or violence. And Simon Tindall’s cinematography (particularly the moody night-time stuff) is complemented beautifully by Luke Abbott’s gurgling electro-pop soundtrack.
Hard to Be a God (Arrow, cert 15)
Boris and Arkady Strugatsky wrote the story on which Tarkovsky based his Stalker. And we’re on similar ground in this dirty brutal masterpiece based on another of their novels – a hopeless world where the advances of science and civilisation are all but absent. Shot in black and white, set on an alien planet 800 years behind our own, the film has a plot – if you look at the IMDb it will explain what it is, but I was struggling. What I could see was a lot of shit, and I mean shit of every shade and texture, from the opening shot of arse cheeks literally being prised apart by their owner, so as to make defecation on the people below easier, right to the very last frame. This is a wry joke of a movie, about a world where science is being ruthlessly expunged wherever glimmers remain. The barely detectable plot is about a scientist surveying this wretched realm and filming what he finds – hence the large number of faces gurning to camera, Baldrick style. Dead dogs hang from strings; dead people hang from ropes; there’s a room full of nothing but dangling rabbits. The picture Hard to Be a God paints of the medieval era is the one lampooned in Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail – people in rags, work of unimaginable mundanity, rocks, mud, cold, misery, of ugly misshapen people scuttling about crook-backed – done without a scrap of humour. Director Aleksey German summons this world of Gormenghast Gothic meets Hieronymus Bosch with fanatical abandon, and if the film is a triumph of anything, it’s production design. It’s certainly not attractive, in the usual sense of the word, and I’m not convinced German needs three hours to make the pro-enlightenment, anti-clerical points he makes. But it’s a once-seen-never-forgotten affair, that’s undeniable, a work of medieval sci-fi that could only come from one country – oh those Russians.
The New Girlfriend (Metrodome, cert 15)
Like a romantic comedy with the laughs turned down but the wit turned up, The New Girlfriend examines power relations in many directions. But most significantly from one side of the grave to the other, between an attractive woman and her much more attractive friend, who, we learn in François Ozon’s admirably snappy set-up, was first at everything as the two girls were growing up – and this included (dry chuckle) getting a terminal disease and dying. Now, Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) is left all alone. But not for long. Because she discovers, in the second of Ozon’s wry reveals, that her dead friend Laura’s husband (Romain Duris) is dressing in his deceased wife’s clothes, partly, though not at all exclusively, because this surrogacy placates the baby, who misses its mother, but also partly because he’s a transvestite. What plays out then is part revenge comedy – as Laura (now the more attractive of the two “women”), part romance (no spoilers), part wistful bereavement drama. It’s based on a Ruth Rendell story, but there are clear overtones of Patricia Highsmith in the sexual powerplay, with dark psychology underpinning the breeziest of interchanges. You can see elements of all sorts of other types of film in it – the Hollywood ugly duckling transformation where women try on clothes in montage sequences; the Richard Curtis comedy of strained middle-class manners; old school French farce as phantom affairs battle real ones. It helps enormously that Romain Duris is of a fairly slight build and so at a squeeze (for him and us) we can imagine him getting into a woman’s clothes, and that he’s so abundantly masculine – stubble, thick eyebrows – that we’re never in doubt that there’s a wolf-in-sheep’s clothing aspect to the relationship too, and that if he is hiding, then Claire is not being entirely honest either. Hollywood will undoubtedly remake it, hoping for some kind of Tootsie/Doubtfire payday. And maybe someone could persuade Tom Cruise to star in it. It’s physical acting, Tom, just what you’re all about.
Man Up (StudioCanal, cert 15)
Man Up tells the story of a serially disappointed Bridget Jones-y woman having a blind date night out with a man who thinks she is someone else. It goes well, until he finds out that she isn’t who she says she is. At which point the boy-loses-girl segment of the film is kicked blearily out of bed and onto the screen. Because if you were breezy, nerdy and needy Simon Pegg (for it is he), and you’d met sexy, smart and fun Lake Bell, you’d be fucking delighted, wouldn’t you? And hang the circumstances that had brought you together. In fact you’d be calling it astral intervention, wouldn’t you? This romantic comedy structurally doesn’t work, because it has waited far too long to introduce “the impediment” section of the wins-loses-regains schematic. You could say that there is an impediment to the impediment – we can see that these people have fallen for each other, and a detail isn’t enough to make them un-fall. Another problem is that Pegg’s character is just too prissy to like, though my god he works like a Trojan to blow air and cuteness into a script convinced it is funnier and more Nora Ephron like than it is. At bottom Man Up’s big problem is that it isn’t a rom-com at all, it’s chick-lit, like a book with a nice lilac cover that’s been accessorised here and there with the odd dirty word – “vagina” seems to be the one everyone agrees is naughty and yet anatomically forgivable enough to do the work – in an attempt to make it look a bit more grrrr. So I hated it? No, I didn’t. Even doing a British accent (well), Lake Bell has got that special something, and Pegg almost makes his character likeable, the supporting cast of great talents (Harriet Walter, Ken Stott, Sharon Horgan) might be thrown away but Rory Kinnear, as Bell’s old stalker boyfriend, gets a lot of laughs from his acts of sheer desperation, and once it’s got through its unconvincing meet-cute set-up and its structurally inept second act, it does barrel enjoyably towards the only finish this sort of thing can have.
Tracers (EONe, cert 12)
Taylor Lautner’s post-Twilight decision to become an action star makes a lot of sense – he can’t act and he is physically fit. In fact, in Tracers, it’s clear he’s been taking acting classes, and a touch of charisma and character is now beginning to peep out from beneath that peevish bulldog-in-waiting face. The plot: he’s a cycle courier who falls for a parkour girl (Marie Avgeropoulos) he spies vaulting, running and bouncing through and over New York one day. Determined to get with her, he learns parkour skills in a Rocky-montage moment and has soon joined her gang of fellow free-runners, unaware that they are controlled by a Fagin (Adam Rayner) with criminal designs and a moral dead centre. Enough plot; is the film any good? Well, any film that has decided to model itself on bad 1980s actioners is on a hiding to nothing, and this right down to the use of locations (the New Yorker building, the Empire State, many many backstreets with iron fire escapes), and a tendency to stop the film’s action to explain what’s going on to the audience. But Avgeropoulos is an effortless star – attractive, feisty and physically capable. And Lautner’s physicality is hugely impressive too – god can that boy bounce. And while the film is barrelling over rooftops, running up vertical surfaces, hurdling walls, sailing over sheer drops, it’s actually highly enjoyable. Wait for the end, when director Daniel Benmayor announces as clearly as he can without arriving on screen with a megaphone that he thinks he’s made a genre pastiche masterpiece. It amused me for all the wrong reasons. But this film does have its moments, most of them belonging to Avgeropoulos.
Rashomon (BFI, cert 12)
Critics use Rashomon as a kind of shorthand, to describe films in which multiple points of view are all given similar value. So in this story of the murder of a man escorting his wife through a forest, the question is: who did the killing, and how did all the parties involved react before, during and after? That’s the whole story, and Kurosawa’s entire film deals with the telling and re-telling of it. In fact this aspect – the novelty of director Akira Kurosawa’s philosophical position – has generally been given too much weight. The unreliable narrator was hardly a novelty (almost all of Orson Welles’s films use one to some extent), though it’s hard to think of a film where, by the end, no final “truth” has been revealed, as is the case with Rashomon. Even so, generally, Rashomon has been invoked by critics too often – most people, after all, have not seen the film. Actually, back in 1950 the film was seized on for a simpler reason. That of all the films coming out of Japan – still being run by General Douglas Macarthur – this was the most recognisable, because Kurosawa looked so much towards Hollywood for inspiration. In the storytelling, Rashomon has the simple, forward-leaning drive of John Ford’s Stagecoach. In its key character – the bandit, played by Toshiro Mifune – it has a figure lifted from a Douglas Fairbanks film, head tossed back in laughter, legs athwart, Mifune throwing himself into the physical scenes like Fairbanks’s 1920’s Zorro. In short, if you’ve not seen it, this is not the arthouse exercise in arid theorising that you might expect. It’s a vivid, fast-paced affair whose framing devices (the “whose reality?” stuff) now suggest Pulp Fiction or The Usual Suspects (which most obviously uses the same structure). It’s vastly entertaining, though this restoration can’t hide the fact that detail has bleached out in certain scenes; Japanese films of this era often having been shot on shabby film stock to start with. And if you want to read it as a Japanese critique of honour in a country which had surrendered only five years earlier – the words “honour”, “shame” and “nowadays” come up an awful lot – then that’s there for digestion too.
Julia (Matchbox, cert 15)
A woman is fed an immobilising drug, is raped, bundled into a car and left for dead out in a bad part of town. Crawling home naked, she sits whimpering in the shower, bleeding from her wounds but also adding another notch to an arm already covered in self-harm scars. This woman of low self-esteem is then taken in hand by a woman dressed in quasi dominatrix gear and introduced to a man who offers revenge… though it must be done his way. As you can already see, a simple rape revenge movie has been complicated twice. Why the self-harming stuff? What does it add? And why the outside agent? Why couldn’t a woman who had been appallingly treated – even a timid one – go off on a revenge jag? The answer is because I Spit on Your Grave already exists. And that Julia is an experiment in neo-giallo, and those Italians always liked to pile on just a little bit more than the quivering edifice could take. Ashley C Williams, once a component of a certain human centipede, is our heroine, but really, as with original giallo, the camera is a protagonist too, its wonkiness and proximity suggesting Julia’s psyche, with an escalating sense of dread the aim of director Matthew A Brown. Job very much done. If you’ve never gone for giallo’s use of garish lighting effects, you’re unlikely to be happy here either. But Frank Hall’s electro soundtrack adds a Drive-era Refn-ness to the ambience and helps weld this dark, faintly preposterous film together. There’s even gore for the hounds and sex for the dogs.
© Steve Morrissey 2015